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How Did You Pick Your Instrument? by Alex Walsh

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My first harmonica looked like this.

How Did You Pick Your Instrument?
by Alex Walsh

Every musician has a story on how they picked their instrument. Some people get their’s handed to them in elementary school and never change. Some have to fight for it.

For me, I received a harmonica as a present. I was thirteen and living in Ocean Springs, MS. Like many families, we probably had one in the house growing up but this was different. I don’t remember asking for it. I remember I was trying to play the recorder on my own which was probably driving my parents crazy. So they gave me a harmonica. I used to jump around the house with my harmonica pretending to be a southern preacher and an old blues guy at the same time. “The South will riiiiiiise a-gain! Words taken from today’s gospel…” was my refrain.

I learned by trying to mimic the intro to the band Blackfoot’s song, Train, Train, from their album Blackfoot Strikes. I don’t know why I had that album. I probably heard it on the radio and bought it through a record club. It has a 30-second harmonica intro that mimics a train slowly starting and picking up speed. Dolly Parton recorded it on her bluegrass album The Grass Is Blue and won a Grammy in 2001.

During my research for this, I saw that the Blackfoot album was recorded in Ann Arbor, MI. Strangely, my family moved there a few years later. I was still interested in harmonica and by that time was also playing guitar and had discovered the blues. A big inspiration was seeing Peter MadCat Ruth playing in Ann Arbor. He was great. He had a pedal board and could make the harmonica sound like a guitar. He blew me away with his whacky Jimi Hendrix-like grande finale.

I kept going with the harmonica and still play it. I have tried to hunker down and study it over the years, which I do for a time. But it’s just more fun to play. I can always pick it up and play something.

Peter Madcat Ruth

In the 2000s I started giving harmonica lessons for money. Being self-taught, it took a while to figure out how to explain what was going on. Most of it is happening in your mouth so it’s kind of difficult. I found the best way was to use a beginning blues harmonica book which provides structure. Also, they come with play-along CDs.

Many people think the harmonica is easy because they had one growing up. I tell people it is and it isn’t. After all these years, I’m still working on that Train, Train intro, and I’m fine with that.

How did you pick your instrument?